Philadelphia 76ers: Who better to lead the Sixers than T.J. McConnell?

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Finally given a chance to shine in the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting five, T.J. McConnell brought hope back to the City of Brotherly Love.

Going into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, I wrote an article highlighting the Philadelphia 76ers need to find a “legitimate” point guard to pair with Ben Simmons in Brett Brown‘s starting five, and while this sentiment ultimately rang true and is a major reason why the series record currently sits at 3-1, I never would have imagined that T.J. McConnell would have been the player to unlock the team’s offensive firepower.

But hey, at this point underestimating McConnell is kind of par for the course.

After failing to receive a scholarship offer to a Power Five program coming out of High School, McConnell developed his skillset at Duquesne for two years, before eventually taking his talents out west to the Pac-12, to star in the Arizona Wildcats‘ backcourt.

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A two-time all-Pac-12 defender, McConnell served as the proverbial linchpin in then-head coach Sean Miller‘s Wildcats squad alongside current Brooklyn Nets‘ starting forward, and Chester, Pa native Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but even after averaging almost 10 points and six assists in 76 career starts at Arizona, few believed that the Pittsburg native would have any chance of making an NBA roster.

However, one of the few who actually did was Brett Brown, and after going undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft, the then-23-year-old took his talents to South Philly and began the long and arduous journey to making an NBA roster.

After a solid training camp and appearances in both the Vegas and Utah Summer Leagues, McConnell eventually landed a spot on the Sixers’ 15-man roster but played in very limited action on one of the worst team’s in NBA history.

Though he averaged a little over six points in about 20 minutes of action a night, McConnell was viewed by many as a facilitator of tanking, as opposed to a legitimate point guard, and would likely be long gone when the time eventually came for the team to take a shot at the Eastern Conference.

Except two seasons later, he’s still here.

After losing both Simmons and Jerryd Bayless for the team’s 2016-2017 season, McConnell quickly found himself a starter for the Philadelphia 76ers, and in the unlikeliest of moves, actually made the team fairly competitive, almost tripling their win total from the year before.

Now granted, he did have the likes of Dario Saric and Joel Embiid to pass the ball to, but McConnell’s confidence grew with each passing game, to the point where he even earned his own signature shot, “the TJ” on a buzzer-beating jumper against the New York Knicks.

One of the feel-good stories of the 2016-2017 NBA season, many Philly fans took pride in McConnell as an underdog success story, with even future-Sixer LeBron James attempting to add the 6-foot-2 point guard to his Cleveland Cavaliers‘ roster at the trade deadline, but for Coach Brown, the very man who cultivated the former Wildcat into an NBA-caliber point guard, the idea of trading him for basically nothing seemed unheard of.

That is, until Markelle Fultz came to town.

When Bryan Colangelo traded up in the 2017 NBA Draft to select the versatile, 6-foot-4 combo guard out of Washington to eventually pair with Simmons in the Sixers’ backcourt for years to come, it seemed like McConnell’s second shoe had finally dropped, but after Fultz suffered a shoulder injury that would cost him virtually his entire rookie season, the Pittsburgh kid, now delegated to bench full time, continued to make plays when his number was called.

And in what may be the truest irony of all, when his number was finally called under the bright lights of the NBA Playoffs, T.J. McConnell proved once and for all that he’s a legitimate starting caliber NBA point guard.

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After losing his spot in the rotation to Fultz over the final dozen or so games of the season, and playing a diminished role over the first 10 games of the NBA Playoffs, McConnell finally received an opportunity to start at point guard in Coach Brown’s starting five in what very well could have been the final Philadelphia 76ers game of the 2017-2018 season, and delivered the best game of his career.

With no clear answer to the Boston Celtics‘ diminutive guard tandem of Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart in Games 1-3, McConnell’s pesky, hard-nosed defense essentially shut out the Eastern Conferences’ breakout star of the 2018 NBA Playoffs and foiled Brad Steven‘s plan to shut out the Sixers on their home court.

Finishing the game with a career-high 19 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, McConnell finally gave the 76ers a second primary ball handler in Coach Brown’s starting five, and seemingly unlocked Simmons’ offensive firepower as an off-ball small forward.

Oh yeah, and for the first time in what feels like forever, the Sixers actually won a game.

After struggling to matchup against the Celtics small ball starting five, McConnell, a player that many pundits and fans alike believed wasn’t even a true NBA player, somehow became the difference between an early summer vacation, and a shot to do what no other team has ever done in modern sports history; win a best of seven series after losing its the first three games.

With McConnell now expected to start the remained of the 76ers series against the Celtics, be that one game of three, the team’s fate is now firmly in the hands of an undrafted free agent from the Keystone State, not the consensus Rookie of the Year who just so happened to be the number one overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

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Much like when Nick Foles took over the Philadelphia Eagles offense in November of 2017 after Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending ACL injury and then lead his team to the first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, the City over Brotherly Love has been given a glimmer of hopes in another former backup, McConnell, to defy the lofty odds and make Philly a championship city once more.

When I wrote that Brett Brown should Free T.J. McConnell after the team’s Game 3 loss to the Celtics at the Wells Fargo Center, I never would have imagined that he would essentially be given the keys to the kingdom, and be tasked with the seemingly insurmountable task of leading the team back from a historic deficit, but now, in hindsight, I couldn’t imagine a better man for the job.

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Often overlooked and undervalued due to his perceived lack of size, speed, and talent, McConnell has consistently overcome the odds and carved out a nice niche for himself in the league, and now, with the team’s very future on the line, why can’t he do it once more? The consummate professional, T.J. represents everything Philly loves in their sports figures, a real Rocky of the hardwood if you will, and if he can defy the odds and get the Philadelphia 76ers to the Eastern Conference finals against the undermanned Boston Celtics, McConnell could solidify his place in Philadelphia sports history, and prove once and for all that he’s an starting point guard in the NBA.